In our modern lives we have become accustomed to some things that might not be exactly right. We get shown a picture of something and from then on, we think that is the only type of whatever it is. It’s not our fault we get blasted with information overload on a daily basis.

   Take for instance the question of, “what is a tarp? “Most people will say the blue thing on roofs after storms come through. While they aren’t wrong, they aren’t exactly right either. Since this is part of the “Probably won’t but could happen” list, I think it might be time to clarify what a tarp is first.


What is?

    The use of tarps goes WAY BACK in history. Mostly they were used on ships for covering things that needed to be kept dry. Not much has changed in that regard but some of its uses have been frowned upon in modern times.

    The word tarp actually comes from tar and palling. These were used to make canvas or skins waterproof. Indigenous North Americans used unrefined petroleum to waterproof their clothes. It’s kind of impressive that instead of looking for a reason to stay inside when it rains, they just made their clothes rainproof and stayed outdoors. I love their spirit, but my motto is “I will stay out fishing if it starts raining, but I won’t leave the dock in it.” 

 Early sailors were called tarpaulins because they slept on deck and were covered with the waterproof material. They also waterproofed their clothes the same way. In some Navies they used the tarps to catch blood as they executed mutinous sailors. I guess that was a bit too gory for the early pirate movies and they adapted walking the plank.

    At one point in time tarps were issued as part of emergency kits for Nuclear Attack. I’m not sure how a waterproof tarp was supposed to shield you from a nuclear blast but I’m sure somebody had some kind of reason for it. Thankfully it was never put to the test.

"The fact that people have survived ourselves this long should be an eye opener to some that there is someone looking over us from above."


    Now the tarp still has the main job of keeping water off of whatever needs to be covered. The materials used now are usually synthetics or canvas. The traditional canvas type lasts longer. But the modern ones are lighter. So?


    When would you need a tarp? Whenever you need to keep something dry. Tarps are the multitool of rainproofing. If you can think of a way to use it, it'll probably work.

     Some rope and a couple branches and you can turn a tarp into a decent tent. If you have more than one tarp with you, that decent tent can turn into quite a nice dwelling. Early military tents were made from tarps. That’s right, a waterproof canvas cut into rectangles. They even had stoves inside them. So, you're only limited by your imagination when creating your waterproof dwelling.

 If you don’t mind cutting it, you can make a decent poncho out of a tarp. It doesn’t need to be a big enough piece to make a tent. Just cover your head, let the rest wrap around you. Tie it off or hold it with your hands and keep going. Trust me, if you're wet and cold and it’s still raining, staying dry is a life saver. Literally.

   They also make good ground cover in tents. The ground will absorb heat from your body at night. Tarps make a good first line of defense between you and the ground. Especially if the ground is wet. When you wake up that next morning and feel all better, you’ll be glad you put the tarp down first. 

     If you’re really creative and somewhat crafty you can make a boat from them. Early kayaks were covered in waterproof skins. And waterproof skins are “TARPS.” You’ll have to make a frame from branches but once you do, cover it with the tarp and hit the water. You can make a round one called a coracle the same way.

 Got an extra tarp on that little boat. Get you a longer stronger tree and stand it up in the front of the boat. Tie a smaller one on the top of the big one in the shape of a cross. Tie the tarp to it and do the same at the bottom. You just added a sail to the little boat that can. You will definitely turn heads when you come sailing into the dock in this. Don’t say a word, just grin and wave.

    There is even a special decompression chamber for divers suffering from the bends made out of, you guessed it, tarps. These are some of the most versatile items in our “Probably won’t but could happen” list. If you can find a way to do it, it can be done with a tarp, and maybe some duct tape. More on that stuff later.


   So, with that many uses there are probably that many different kinds of tarps out there. EEEHhHHH. I think it breaks down to 2 types: Natural and Synthetic. They each have their pros and cons. Which one you choose depends on what’s important to you.


   Early tarps were made from natural fibers or animal skins. Today most of the natural tarps are made from cotton canvas. Some are made from hemp, but they weigh a lot more. They are also cheaper than synthetic tarps. They do wear out quicker, or dry rot, but the life of them can be extended dramatically with proper care.

   If you are concerned with environmental issues, and as outdoors people you should be, canvas is biodegradable. Once it hits the ground, it won't last long if not being cared for but that’s where some other uses come into the tarp.

   At the end of its glorious life as your trusted water barrier, canvas tarps can start a new life in your garden. They can be used to make a compost pile. They could be used to wrap the baser of some trees and plants. Or to just help with keeping the beds straight. The life of the canvas tarp is amazing. As it should be.


    Most synthetic tarps are made from vinyl. Vinyl is a plastic with some other chemicals added to it. They are lighter, cheaper, and last quite a while.

   They are horrible for the environment and never decompose. So, if you do use these make sure you keep up with it and dispose of it as directed. The last thing we need is more plastic in the environment. So please be smart.

   I like vinyl tarps for emergency uses. They don’t weigh anything and that makes them really easy to pack, especially when you are carrying the weight on your shoulders. That’s when every little ounce makes a difference and I usually need the extras for food.

    I will leave the choice to you and your judgment. Buy canvas.


   Now that you know what a tarp is and just how ingenious an invention it truly is, I hope you put one in your kit. You are informed, you are intelligent, you are capable of more than you know, you can decide what kind of tarp you are going to carry for the “probably won’t but could happens”. Except for emergencies, GET CANVAS!



Enjoy the Outdoors. Life is Out Here!

written by Benjamin Evans